Ehud Barak's decision to quit politics means the departure of a man who has been at the heart of Israel's military establishment for more than half a century, either taking part in person or masterminding many of its controversial exploits – including this month's assault on the Gaza Strip.
Barak announced on Monday he would retire from party politics at the election in January. But the former prime minister kept open the possibility of retaining the defence portfolio if the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is reelected and reappoints him to the cabinet as an individual not a party leader in the governing coalition.
He once described Israel as "a villa in the jungle".
Barak said he would not run in the election and wanted to spend more time with his family.
Chequered career ... Ehud Barak announces on Monday he is leaving political life. Photo: AFP
‘‘There are many ways to contribute to the state, politics isn’t the only one,’’ he said. ‘‘My decision to retire stems from my desire to devote that time to my family, and also because I have never felt that politics was the height of my ambition. I made the decision not without qualms but ultimately with a whole heart.’’
Barak, 70, has never rated in the popularity stakes in Israel – one commentator called him "the man everyone loves to hate" – but he has always been known for his cerebral qualities as well as his long experience of fighting Arabs. He once described Israel as "a villa in the jungle".
Some observers say he has exercised a restraining influence on Netanyahu, but he has been no less hawkish than his boss on the question of whether Israel should attack Iran's nuclear program.
Talks failure ... Ehud Barak with Bill Clinton at the White House in November 2000. Photo: AP
As a politician Barak has had a chequered career. His term as prime minister from 1999-2000 was the shortest in Israel's history. He led the Labour Party to electoral defeat against Ariel Sharon in 2001 and then left it to found his own grouping – Independence – last year. But Independence has only four seats in the 120-member Knesset and seems unlikely to perform well in January's elections, which Netanyahu is expected to win easily.
Drafted in 1959, the teenage kibbutznik, the eldest child of parents who migrated to British-ruled Palestine from eastern Europe, left the Israeli Defence Forces 36 years later as chief of staff and its most decorated soldier.
Nicknamed Napoleon by his army friends, the young Barak (Hebrew for "lightning") made his reputation commanding the elite Sayeret Matkal, the general staff reconnaissance unit, which often operates behind enemy lines.
In 1973, Barak, wearing a female wig and high heels, led a commando raid in Beirut during which three senior Palestine Liberation Organisation figures were assassinated in revenge for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. The scene was immortalised in Steven Spielberg's film Munich.
Fans often speak of his laser-like determination, which critics have chided as a lack of peripheral vision. In 2008, the political columnist Nahum Barnea called Barak's decision to blockade the Hamas-run Gaza Strip an example of the difference between "being smart and being a smartass".
Last month it was officially confirmed that Israel had assassinated the PLO's military chief, Abu Jihad, in Tunisia in 1988 during the first Palestinian intifada. Barak, then deputy chief of staff, is reported to have run the operation. That was part of an Israeli strategy that assumed, then as now, that there is a military solution to the Palestinian question.
Barak became IDF chief of staff in 1991 but, like many other generals, including his mentor Yitzhak Rabin, left the army to enter politics. He beat Shimon Peres to lead the Labour party and then defeated Netanyahu in the 1999 elections.
As prime minister, he sought to reach a conclusive peace agreement with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, an attempt that culminated in the failed 2000 Camp David summit in Bill Clinton's last days in the White House. That led to the second intifada, which in turn brought his resignation in 2001.
Barak's public image was badly damaged by the purchase of an expensive apartment in one of Tel Aviv's flashiest and most sought-after locations.
Israel's yearning for experienced military leaders brought him back to political life after the 2006 Lebanon war and he became minister of defence. He seems to have a feel for what motivates his enemies and was widely quoted as saying: "If I were a Palestinian I would have joined a terrorist organisation." Barak also said during a US television interview last year that he would "probably" strive for nuclear weapons if he were in Iran's position.
Guardian News & Media